The Tragedy Of The Moral Commons: Why America’s Collapsing Morally

Ever heard of the tragedy of the commons? It’s a classic economics argument that goes like so:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

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2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

In other words, if “everyone” owns something, no one owns it and each person has a strong incentive to maximize his current gains and minimize his investment in continuing the system.

So, what happens in a country that has embraced a Judeo-Christian ethic since its founding when that system of morality starts to lose hold? What happens when Christian values that used to “own” America become just one of the “commons,” no better or worse than atheism, Islam, hedonism, liberalism and “whatever feels good, do it because who are you to tell me how to live?”

When there is no overriding system of ethics, all systems of ethics start to slowly, but surely lose their power.

— That’s when you start to see a society turn to legalisms to keep people in line instead of morality.

— That’s when you see trashy reality TV that celebrates the worst of our culture.

— That’s when you see gay marriage and people preparing to follow that up with polygamy.

— It’s when you see incredibly rude behavior accepted as just “normal” on the Internet.

— That’s when you see men like Barney Frank, Bill Clinton, Marion Barry and Mark Sanford elected.

— That’s when abortion, divorce and children being born out of wedlock begin to thrive.

— That’s when a lot of people get uncomfortable when you even begin to discuss morality.

If there’s no overriding moral system and two value systems conflict, who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? When you get to that point, right and wrong become arbitrary and we’re left with shared moral values from the old system and whatever laws we have on the books, whether we view them as moral or not.

Sadly, what happens from there is like a child’s game of telephone. These once shared values are passed down habitually, without a true understanding or foundation behind them, but as they go from person to person, they become weaker, more distorted and eventually they become just words — like “You shouldn’t have sex before marriage” have become for most Americans.

That’s not a better world; it’s a more tragic world that’s bad for our entire society.

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